The treachery of the atheists
Why so many rationalist bros have fallen for the hocus pocus of the trans cult.
We are living through a great showdown between hysteria and reason. On one side stand the adherents to the cult of transgenderism, hawking their hocus pocus about gendered souls and self-authentication through castration. On the other side stand those of us who know that biology is real, and that every cell in the human body is sexed, and that a man is as likely to become a woman as that chalice of wine is to become the blood of Christ during Mass (apologies, Catholics).
You’ll never guess which side some New Atheists are taking in this clash between delusion and truth. The crazy side. The side that says a bloke with a beard and balls can literally be a lesbian. Which is infinitely more cranky than the idea that a bloke with a beard and balls can literally be the Son of God. How did rationalist bros, those secularists on steroids, those Dawkins acolytes whose hobby for years was to make fun of the faithful, become devotees of such a strange, post-truth sect?
One by one, atheists are falling at the altar of trans. This week a Twitterfeed called The New Atheists slammed Richard Dawkins for becoming a TERF. Dawkins is a rarity in the new rationalist ranks: he thinks people with penises are men, not women, just as bread is bread, not the body of Christ. He is ‘utterly confused’, decreed his angry apostates. Biology ‘isn’t black and white, it’s a full spectrum of colour just like a rainbow’, they said. This hippyish belief that humans can pick their sex from a multicoloured smorgasbord is entirely an article of faith, of course, not science. Behold rationalism’s turncoats.
We’ve witnessed Neil deGrasse Tyson, America’s best-known scientist, bow to the creed of gender-as-feeling. In a TikTok video he said ‘XX/XY chromosomes are insufficient’ when it comes to reading someone’s sex, because what people feel matters along with their biology. So someone might feel mostly female one day but ‘80 per cent male’ the next, which means they’ll ‘remove the make-up’ and ‘wear a muscle shirt’. Sir, that’s cross-dressing; it does nothing to refute the truth of chromosomes, which absolutely do tell us what sex a person is. As destransitioner Chloe Cole said to Tyson, you’re ‘confusing basic human biology with cosmetics’.
We’ve seen Matt Dillahunty, a leading American atheist, promote the mystic cry that there’s a difference between ‘what your chromosomes are’ and your ‘gender identity’. ‘Transwomen are women’, he piously declares, perhaps keen to prove that while he might be fond of bashing the old religions, he has not one cross or blasphemous word to say about the new religion. Well, no one wants to be excommunicated from polite society.
Stephen Fry is another godless lover of science who appears to have converted to the trans belief. Phillip Pullman, Stewart Lee and others who were once noisy cheerleaders for rationalism are likewise strikingly reserved on this new ideology, this devotional movement which, among other things, invites young women to submit themselves to bodily mortification in order that they might transubstantiate into ‘men’. Seems like something a rationalist should question.
Then there’s Humanists UK. Even Britain’s most influential God-free organisation has thrown its lot in with the Flat Earthism of the post-sex ideology. It entreated the British government not to change the definition of sex in the Equality Act to mean ‘biological sex’. Why? Because some people have a mysterious inner gender – soul? – which apparently counts for more than their biological sex when it comes to the question of which social spaces they should be allowed to enter. Forget biology, forget science; make feeling king. Some women resigned from Humanists UK over what they viewed as its abandonment of ‘compassionate, scientific [and] rational’ principles in favour of the unreality of gender subjectivity.
Witness the treachery of the atheists. Yesterday’s warriors for rationalism are now footsoldiers of postmodern delirium. The religion-bashers who came to prominence in the 2000s now pray to the gods of gender correctness, whether from fear of cancellation or because they really have had a Damascene conversion to the idea that feelings override reality; that scientific truth must sometimes play second fiddle to our flattering of the self-esteem of men who say they’re women, women who say they’re men, and presumably mere mortals who claim to be God. After all, if Dave with his dick and five o’clock shadow can literally be a woman, why shouldn’t Gary be the Second Coming? Subjectivity rules, no?
The rationalist bluster of the New Atheists was all sound and fury, it seems. The minute a real struggle over reason exploded into public life, they vacated the battlefield or joined the other side, crying ‘transwomen are women!’ as they went to signal their fidelity to the new faith. It’s easy to bash the old religions, especially Christianity. Newspaper columns, invites to literary festivals and conference halls full of the fawning godless middle class awaited those who said: ‘Jesus walking on water? As if!’ The consequences of deviating from the trans ideology are far more severe. Columns are taken away, invites evaporate, the middle classes will gather to scorn not cheer. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that some public atheists value their reputations more than rationalism.
What makes their desertion of reason even more galling is that they’ve done it in response to a neo-religion that really is harming the young. Fundamentalist Christians might try to convert gay kids out of their homosexuality, but this new religion mutilates them out of it, by transing young lesbians into ‘boys’ and gay lads into ‘girls’. Faith schools might promote zany miracle stories to their pupils, but this new cult imbues kids with far more disorientating beliefs about 72 genders and girldick and lesbians with penises. The old religions frown on blasphemy, and so does this new one, with its treatment of any ‘denier’ of its theological criteria as a social leper. Especially if the ‘denier’ is a woman: yes, this religion also hates uppity women. And yet it is at this moment, with all this unfolding, that some rationalists take a break from rationalism. It is moral cowardice in the garb of social justice.
Others go further than to criticise the complicity of some New Atheists with modern unreason. They say these godless agitators are to blame for the new madness. In chasing God from society, in further weakening the church, they ‘created a void that a new, dangerous ideology [has] filled’, says Tim Stanley at the Daily Telegraph. Kill God, get trans. Which means that even Dawkins, TERF-ish as he is, is partly culpable for the lunacy he now laments.
I think there’s something in this. But the problem is not that the New Atheists made a ‘void’ that others rushed to fill. It’s that they actively helped to foster the very hyper-atomisation that underpins an ideology like transgenderism. With their promotion of the post-God and post-humanist belief that human beings are nothing more than genetic machines, bundles of DNA in a pitiless world without meaning, the New Atheists contributed to our era’s great, tragic retreat of the individual from the social world into the self. From the external world of connection and engagement into the diminished universe of genetic determinism, bodily transformation and jealous cultivation of one’s own narcissistic virtue.
So, yes, there is a line from Dawkins to trans. Dawkins’ contribution to elite thinking was colossal, especially with his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. He made evolutionary biology mainstream, the idea that we humans are not as special as we thought. Our universe has ‘no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference’, he once wrote: ‘DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’ Dance to its music. The most striking thing about Dawkins and other neo-Darwinists was not their atheism, said the great moral philosopher Mary Midgley, but their ‘fatalism’. In The Solitary Self, her stinging critique of the new evolutionists, Midgley rebuked Dawkins for his depiction of ‘helpless humans enslaved by a callous-like fate-figure’. Only his fatalistic view was more deadening than that of Ancient scribes, she wrote, because this time the ‘cosmic bully’ controlling our fate is not a ‘pagan deity’ but ‘a chemical, DNA, a part of our own cells’. ‘Like other organisms’, she lamented, we’re seen as ‘lumbering robots ruled by [biology]’.
The Dawkins view grew in influence in the 1980s and 1990s. It was given expression in the soulless technocracy of the New Atheism. It merged with other atomising trends of our time – the decline of social institutions, the rise of a culture of fear, and, yes, the withering of religion – to exacerbate a view of the individual as utterly alone, a genetic creature more than a social one, ruled not by reason but by instructions sent by our DNA. ‘Biological Thatcherism’, Midgley called it.
And here’s the thing: if we are our biology, and that alone, doesn’t it make sense that individuals who want to change themselves would feel the need to change their biology? If we dance to the music of our DNA, doesn’t it follow that people who want to become something else, something different, will have the urge to change the music of their DNA? In short, there is a link, surely, between the post-1970s reduction of the human being to mere genetics and this new millennium’s fad for trying, however forlornly, to alter oneself at the level of genetics. Taking hormones, cutting bits off, removing testes, removing ovaries, injecting, mutilating, pursuing a ceaseless, pitiless war against one’s very biological essence. That the trans movement, and identitarianism more broadly, treats the body as the sole site of change should not be surprising in our era of biological Thatcherism where there is no society, no morality, no good, no evil – just bodies, stardust made flesh, all following genetic impulses. There is a close relationship between the modern ideologies of atomisation and the fruitless infernal war the young now wage on their own bodies, on their DNA prisons we’re all told we inhabit.
Perhaps Dawkins is the grandfather of transgenderism. I jest. But I do think we need to wriggle free from this clash between biological determinism on one side and self-destructive biological ‘liberation’ on the other. Biology is real, but it does not control us. You cannot change your sex but you can change your circumstances. That, however, requires that we go beyond both the biological Thatcherism of the new sciences and the neoliberal self-regard of identity politics and rediscover our place in a world of other people and other ideas. We’re social creatures, not ‘lumbering robots’ to be controlled or, worse, carved up and replaced with new parts.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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